Is Do Not Track dead on arrival?

Privacy wonks and advertisers are struggling to come up with a way for consumers to say 'Don't track me, bro'. Here's what DNT may look like when the dust finally settles.

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Asking the ad industry to regulate itself is a bit like handing Lindsay Lohan the keys to the liquor cabinet and saying “Make sure nobody touches a drop.” Even if the spirit is willing, DNA is destiny – and it’s in advertisers’ DNA to monetize your data as profitably as possible. 

And yet, save for a handful of exceptions, self regulation has ruled data collection on the Internet. Over that same period of time, the amount and types of information total strangers can collect about us has grown at a staggering rate – and a thriving though largely invisible tracking industry has grown along with it.

This is why for the past two years privacy advocates, technologists, and tracking industry geeks have been meeting regularly in person and on the phone and exchanging thousands of emails, trying to hammer out a compromise that allows consumers to say Don't Track Me Bro, while allowing publishers and the ad industry to collect data they need in order to survive. 

Last week the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Tracking Protection Working Group convened its last face-to-face meeting prior to the July deadline imposed by current group chair Peter Swire. Like a handful of other journalists, I’ve been lurking on the email convos between the various parties.

It’s been a fascinating trip into the arcana of how browsers and ad servers work. If you just can’t get enough about first- and third-party cookies, de-identification, rotating hashes, user agents, siloization, etc – and you suffer from incurable insomnia – I suggest signing up for the list.

But it all boils down to a simple piece of HTML code your browser sends to every Web server you visit, and what happens afterward.

If your browser code is set to DNT: 1, you’re telling the site to get its filthy tracking cookies off my computer you damn dirty ape. If your browser is set to DNT: 0, you’re saying please track me, I am a sponge for that kind of impersonal but persistent attention.

Beyond that, the devil is in the details, and frankly the details make my brain hurt. But if both sides do manage to reach an agreement by July, it will probably look like this:

1. Tracking will be set by default

The ad industry has been adamant about this from the get go: They want to track people from the day they install their browser. They want to make people go in and deliberately alter their settings to turn tracking off. Why? Because they know at least 90 percent of Netizens won’t bother.

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